«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
1) Organizing: As mentioned earlier, my knowledge of specific community arts initiatives derived from the social relationships that I developed prior to beginning fieldwork. Through my own personal networks and internet searches, I tried to learn of other initiatives that I was not necessarily familiar with and contacted all of these groups in order to find out if they would be willing to be involved in the research project. I ended up working with three of these organizations because they were the ones that not only responded to my initial request and were interested in being involved but they also had the capacity to take on a researcher. I chose not to work as closely with more than three organizations because it would have been extremely logistically difficult to do so. At the same time, for those organizations that I learned about but that I did not end up working with directly, I made an effort to attend and participate in the events, programs and shows that they hosted (see #2). Descriptions of these
three initiatives and how I was involved in their work are included below:
ILL NANA DiverseCity Dance Company (ILL NANA DC/DC) describes itself as a “queer multiracial dance company that embraces difference as strength and are committed to changing the landscape of dance by performing our stories on stage as well as providing more accessible education and performance opportunities for LGBTTIQQ2S (lesbian gay bisexual transgender transsexual intersex queer questioning and 2-spirit) communities, prioritizing people of color, various body types, backgrounds, classes and abilities”. Each year, it hosts a weekly drop in dance class, a two month dance intensive program, as well as a dance conference (the last two of these initiatives also often involve a dance showcase). In addition to these three core initiatives, ILL NANA DC/DC also responds to frequent workshop and performance requests from various social service agencies and community organizations both within the City of Toronto and beyond. The work of the company is financially supported through grants, donations and workshop/performance fees. ILL NANA DC/DC was established in 2007 and is currently composed of 3 collective members: SzeYang Ade-Lam, kumari giles and Jelani Ade-Lam. To get a sense of the scope/scale/impact of this organization, it currently has approximately 1,700 “friends” on its facebook page. Its drop in dance class attendance ranges from between 7-20 students, its two month intensive dance program accepts roughly 10 participants, and its annual conference draws about 50 attendees. ILL NANA performs and hosts shows in small venues that typically hold less than 100 people. In spite of these relatively small numbers, the company has a significant impact within Toronto and has been featured several times in both print and radio media in ways that highlight its work in transforming mainstream dance in the City.
In working with ILL NANA, I not only attended all of their programming (drop in classes, two month intensive and conference) as a participant but I also took part in the work of running the organization through various means. Among other things, I attended and participated in their meetings, helped write grants, provided back stage assistance at their shows, attended showings of their works in progress and gave feedback.
BlacknessYes!/ Blockorama: BlacknessYes! describes itself as a community based committee that seeks to celebrate the history, creativity and resistance of African-diasporic, Black and Caribbean queer and trans people. It “works to affirm, celebrate and ensure visible Black LGBTTIQQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersex, queer and questioning] communities within Pride, to create Black cultural space within Pride that any Black or Black affirming person can be a part of; and to create a vehicle for HIV/AIDS information dissemination”. BlacknessYes! is committed to anti-oppression, (self) love, freedom and justice and operates as a space of resistances to counter systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism and colonialism. Its signature event is Blockorama, the longest running community stage at Pride Toronto which draws crowds numbering in the thousands every year. Paying homage to the strong Caribbean roots of Toronto’s Black communities, in the past several years BlacknessYes! has also hosted its own Caribana-themed social event Blocko-bana. (Caribana is an annual street festival held in the City of Toronto that draws inspiration from the Carnivals that take place throughout the Caribbean). BlacknessYes! has also hosted other initiatives such as Back to Our Roots, a collaboration of community organizations in Toronto that programmed a series of activities at Toronto Pride as well as a show exhibiting the art work and materials that the committee has produced over its long history. BlacknessYes! was established in 1999 as a collective whose members volunteer their time to support the committee’s work. Membership shifts from year to year, but during my fieldwork period, the committee members included: Nik Red, Syrus Ware, Craig Dominic, Shani Robertson, Kyisha Williams, Travoy Hall and Thandy Young. The work of the committee to host Blockorama is financed by Pride Toronto (which in turn receives funding from the City of Toronto), but its other events such as Blockobana are financially supported through donations as well as through fundraisers that BlacknessYes! hosts in the form of paid entry parties.
In my time with BlacknessYes! I attended all programming meetings and worked specifically on the site committee as well as on the volunteer committee as the volunteer coordinator. The work of the BlacknessYes! is divided into various committees and collective members are part of one or more of these committees which meet separately from the main programming meetings to which all members attend. As one of two volunteer coordinators, I worked to recruit and train volunteers for Blockorama and supervised the work of the volunteers during the day of Blockorama programming. As part of the site committee (led by Syrus), I worked to create Blockorama banners (a yearly tradition), conceptually lay out the physical space of the event as well as set up and take down the materials at the site itself.
Unapologetic Burlesque Showcase defines itself as a queer, consensual, anti-racist performance initiative. Its website states, “This is a show where the performers can tell their own stories, not ones that are dictated by what audiences and larger society want to hear, but stories that are unique to them and that no one else can tell. To us burlesque is; storytelling, playing with gender, can incorporate spoken word, singing, acting, dancing and any other talents you have!...This show gives performance space to emerging, first-time, and seasoned performers who are people of colour, Indigenous, queer, genderqueer, trans, people of varying body sizes, people of all abilities, people from varying class backgrounds.” It was originally co-founded by Shaunga Tagore and kumari giles in 2012 as a one-time cabaret style event at the Gladstone Hotel, a boutique hotel in the trendy, west end neighborhood of downtown Toronto. However, the outpouring of positive audience responses to this show caused Shaunga and kumari to think about making Unapologetic an ongoing event. Though it was originally funded through donations and admission fees, within a year of its existence it was able to secure a community art grant which enabled the initiative not only to host more shows and to provide greater financial compensation to volunteers and performers, but also to hold skills sharing/ building workshops to enable novices to learn about how to practice burlesque. Though its programs are fairly small (each of its shows have an audience attendance of approximately 100 people and its workshops draw between roughly 5-15 participants), within the short time of its existence it has gained the attention of Toronto media. The showcase has been featured in one of the city’s local newspapers as well as on a community radio station.
I initially became involved in Unapologetic Burlesque as a volunteer but as Shaunga and kumari began to host more shows they realized that they needed greater support and asked me to take on the role of accessibility coordinator. In working with Unapologetic, I attended organizing meetings, performed in the showcases and coordinated the initiatives’ accessibility efforts which included, among other things: hiring American Sign Language interpreters, recruiting and training accessibility volunteers and attending to the accessibility needs of the audience members and performers. As someone who did not have prior experience with accessibility organizing, I elicited the support of seasoned organizers who were gracious enough to share their knowledge with me. More information about this role specifically can be found in chapter five.
It is important to note that while these three initiatives are in fact separate organizations, like many QTPOC community organizations in Toronto, there are close connections between them. For instance, ILL NANA DC/DC has consistently performed at Blockorama for several years and kumari is a collective member of ILL NANA DC/DC as well as the cofounder of Unapologetic.
2) Attending and participating in other QTPOC community arts initiatives.
During my fieldwork period, I attended and participated in several events held by other grassroots QTPOC community initiatives in Toronto. I came to know of these events through email list serves that I had joined over the years, facebook event invites and postings and by word of mouth. My decision on whether or not to attend or participate in a specific initiative was almost purely logistical. If I had the time to be involved in the work of other organizations, I would try to do so after completing my responsibilities with ILL NANA DC/DC, BlacknessYes!
and Unapolgetic Burlesque. I will refrain from providing an exhaustive enumeration of all the programming and events that I attended but I attempt to give a sense of this work here. Some of the initiatives that I connected with include: WriteOn!, Roots, Rhythm Resistance (R3), Mangos with Chili, Femme Fatales, Raging Asian Women, House of Monroe, Krafty Queers, CuePOC, Raunch and Resistance Cabaret and Strange Sisters. I came into contact with these initiatives in various ways through for instance, attending their workshops, shows, and other programming;
volunteering; or simply having conversations with specific individuals at parties or coffee shops.
I highlight Asian Arts Freedom School in particular because I participated more intensely with this group than any of the other initiatives. The reason for the level of this involvement is because I wanted to be part of the organizing work of AAFS as with the other three groups mentioned earlier but this did not come to pass for various administrative and logistical reasons.
AAFS was founded in 2005 by Leah Lakshmi and Gein Wong as a pan Asian youth artsbased radical history and activism program. Over the years, it has broadened its mandate to focus on youth of color and indigenous youth more generally. It currently hosts several cycles of writing workshops per year as well as a Drag Musical that specifically solicits the participation of sexual and gender minority youth. Over the years, AAFS has accessed various avenues of public funding including ArtReach Toronto, the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council. During my fieldwork period, I participated in all AAFS writing cycles and participated in one of the Drag Musicals.
3) Attending events held by arts funding institutions as well as city government I attended events held by arts organizations and funding institutions that were open to the public as well as events held by the City of Toronto around the issue of community arts. Some of these events included the launch of the Toronto Arts Foundation’s research report on community arts in the city, a community consultation event hosted by the City of Toronto to elicit feedback from community members as to how new funding for the arts should be spent, and a session held by the Toronto Neighborhood Arts Network meant to be a space for community artists to share their work with each other.
At each of these events, as was the case for all my participant observation work, I attempted to take part as fully as possible in the activities at hand and to speak to as many people as I could manage. I would then take copious field notes once I returned home.
During the course of fieldwork I conducted 63 semi-structured interviews. 55 of these interviews were with community organizers and event participants and 8 of these interviews were with staff at arts organizations or public institutions that funded the arts. I put community organizers and participants into the same category because there is often no hard and fast line between the two. For instance, during the course of an interview, I discovered that many of the people I initially came into contact with as fellow participants in a community arts program were also community organizers in their own right: they may have their own program, be running a workshop series or volunteering their time in other initiatives. In deciding who to interview, I focused first on the organizations I worked most closely with, interviewing the members of these groups and then the people who attended their programming. In trying to get a sense of the broader field, I made sure to interview people associated with other QTPOC community arts organizations as well. I almost never approached people who I had never met in person with interview requests. If there were specific people who I wanted to interview, I would try to go to events where I knew they would be present to make an in person connection or I would try to get someone to introduce me. In the case of staff who worked at art organizations or public institutions affiliated with the arts, I did not have the opportunity to make in person connections prior to making an interview request. I chose these individuals because they were often the community arts grants officers at public organizations that funded the arts or they were individuals in arts institutions that worked closely with the QTPOC community initiatives in this study.